New biography praises the late, great Jim Murray

jim-murray-cosell.jpg"Last King of the Sports Page," a biography by academic Ted Geltner, looks at the career of the late Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times columnist (and early Sports Illustrated writer) Jim Murray and apparently somewhat at the fading state of the American newspaper sports section. John Schulian, the author and former newspaper scribe, reviews for the Wall Street Journal and seems to like it. Excerpt:

Jim Murray made the sports page seem as if it should have a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum. In the last four decades of the 20th century, he wrote four, five, even six columns a week, delivering one-liners faster than a stand-up comic with his pants on fire. Casey Stengel's rambling oratory reminded him of "the sound a porpoise makes underwater and an Abyssinian rug merchant."....Even when he railed against the carnage at the Indianapolis 500, there was a laugh, however dark, in his outrage: "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

He'd throw a change-up once in a while, something serious about racism or violence, and it was when deep pain entered his personal life that he wrote perhaps his best columns. Still, the Jim Murray I most loved to read was the one who wisecracked his way onto a stage made of newsprint. Sportswriters before him had dealt in humor—Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Ring Lardner and Ring's boy John—but Murray played a different game entirely: Even when a joke tanked, you had to stick around because his next one would slay you.

He found his audience in Los Angeles, where men who made fortunes being funny left the loving embrace of their wives every morning so they could read him in the Times. And, as no less than Groucho Marx pointed out in a fan letter, "my wife happens to be a very beautiful woman." The rest of America followed shortly. Within a couple of years of its 1961 debut, Murray's column was syndicated in more than 200 papers. By the time he died, in 1998, he was one of those rare ink-stained wretches who fly with the eagles.

A few other observations from Schulian:

  • Murray "stood alongside Vin Scully, the nonpareil broadcast voice of the Dodgers, as an L.A. deity."
  • "I hate to say this, because I spent a large, happy chunk of my working life there, but the sports page is more of a relic every day. The agenda for sports coverage is now set by blabbermouths on radio and TV and bloggers who park their rear ends in front of the flat-screen and tee off on athletes they never have to look in the eye."
  • "If Murray still walked the earth, he would rule blogging. Likewise, he would have done more with 140 characters on Twitter than any sportswriter this side of Dan Jenkins and John Lardner."
  • "All the love and admiration couldn't prevent Murray from running on fumes in the last decade of his career...[But] even today he is the first sportswriter his old readers think of, and if you give them a minute, they'll remember a line from a column he wrote and laugh the way they did the first time they read it."

Photo of Murray and broadcaster Howard Cosell/University of Missouri Press

More by Kevin Roderick:
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